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Muqtada al-Sadr Softens Stance On LGBT Community

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In early 2012 notices started appearing in neighbourhoods of Baghdad, warning named young men to cut their hair, conceal their tattoos and stop wearing ‘satanic’ clothing. The men should embrace ‘complete manhood’ if they did not want to face the ‘wrath of God’ according to the posters, which first appeared in Sadr City.

The signs in Baghdad, and eventually in cities across the country, were almost certainly posted by militia groups. In the weeks that followed scores of people were murdered.

Four years later cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army which took part in the campaign, has ordered his followers to disassociate from LGBT people, but “not attack them.”

It’s a marked difference from the weeks of murders that targeted members of the emo subculture from February 2012. Up to 100 men, and at least one woman, were executed by ‘mawt al-blokkah’ (death by blocking), their bodies left in dumpsters. Mawt al-blokkah is essentially stoning with breeze blocks.

Those militia groups would have been encouraged by the government policy towards what many see as harmless self-expression. A statement from the Morality Police on the Interior Ministry website in January 2012 read: “The ‘Emo phenomenon’ or devil worshiping is being followed by the Morality Police who have the approval to eliminate the phenomenon as soon as possible since it’s detrimentally affecting the society and becoming a danger.

“They wear strange, tight clothes that have pictures on them such as skulls and use stationary that are shaped as skulls. They also wear rings on their noses and tongues, and do other strange activities.”

BBC interviews with gay men in Baghdad in September 2012 blamed the government for inciting the violence. A prior Human Rights Watch report took testimony from several gay men in Baghdad after a similar period in which dozens were killed. Allegations were levelled at the Interior Ministry and Mahdi Army.

In April 2009 ‘Nuri’ (not his real name) told HRW that he was arrested and abused by Interior Ministry officials for being a tanta (queen). “They beat me all over my body; when they had me hanging upside down, they used me like a punching bag…They used electric prods all over my body. Then they raped me. Over three days. The first day, 15 of them raped me; the second day, six; the third day, four. There was a bag on my head every time.”

Other testimony heard by HRW at the time came from ‘Idris’. “The stories started spreading in February about this campaign against gay people by the Mahdi Army,” he said. “I didn’t worry at first. My friends and I, we look extremely masculine, there is nothing visibly ‘feminine’ about us. None of us ever, ever believed this would happen to us. But then at the end of March we heard on the street that 30 men had been killed already.”

Al-Sadr’s July 2016 statement continues to insist that men adopting a ‘feminine’ look remain haram. It comes in response to a question posed by a follower, and follows the fatwas handed down from his father Mohammed al-Sadr.

“You must disassociate from them, but not attack them, as it increases their aversion and you must guide them using acceptable and rational means.”

Deputy Middle East director of HRW Joe Stork cautiously welcomed the stance. “Finally, the head of one of the groups whose members have carried out serious abuses against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Iraq is condemning these heinous attacks.

“We hope this will change behaviour in successors to the Mahdi Army and other ranks, and spur the government to hold accountable those who commit these crimes.”

“While al-Sadr is still a long way from fully embracing human rights for LGBT people, his statement shows that he understands the importance of stopping abuses against them,” Stork said. “The statement represents an important change in the right direction, and should be followed by concrete actions to protect LGBT people from violence.”

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